I remember when America was burning down. It was the 60s. Vietnam, flood of drugs, particularly heroin and LSD, riots in cities that were in fact wars, promises to kill cops by Weathermen, political assassinations, Watergate, the quick fading of consensus on moral codes, the beginning destruction being brought on by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the welfare society, escalating divorce rates and out of wedlock children, churches decimated by liberal theology and the tanking of the mainline denominations beginning, etc. There were still conservative faculty at colleges but their numbers were sinking.
It did feel like anarchy. No safe place. Within 15 years America was electing Ronald Reagan. There is one change in America that might diminish a prospect for stabilization. The diversity of the voting electorate is a challenge to stabilizing cultural consensus. This is different. Some see this only as a good, but it can be a tipping point that makes it beyond difficult to reach common definitions of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. This is a first for America and sentimental ideas of national renewal are not facing the new realities of clash of cultures. See “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” by Samuel P. Huntington, a book we have used in Ethics classes. Also see Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.
By zeroing in on troubling trends in white America, Murray keeps the focus on the country’s increasing polarization along class lines,on the growing isolation of the well-off from the poor, with each group developing radically different cultures, perspectives, and expectations from the other’s. Murray provides historical context, showing that, before the 1960s, Americans of all races and classes had similar perspectives and expectations. Using census data for 1960 and 2000, Murray shows increasing segregation of a college-educated elite living in “SuperZips” from those with little education, eking out a living in poor neighborhoods. Murray also shows strong divergence in education, employment, marriage, crime, and other indicators.
Also go back and read Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville written in the early 1800s. Amazingly prescient. He considered the American experiment doomed, though prosperous for a time. His assertion, the same as Socrates, was that the virtuous man is required for democracy to work, which also required vital religion. He also posited that as the enfranchisement to vote was enlarged the “have nots” would simply vote to themselves the wealth of the “haves.” I think most everyone recognizes this reality today, pandered to by politicians who will promise more wealth for the poorer through taxation, not through economic growth. Today the middle to higher middle class in America pays 37% of their income in taxes, requiring two earner incomes, leading to exhausted families with fewer resources for the nurture and enculturation of children.
De Tocqueville posited that the only way around this phenomenon would be good people among the haves and the have nots who would vote not according to self interest but according to some absolute standard of the good. Democracy does not in and of itself produce good people but only gives people the opportunity to vote. Virtue must come from elsewhere. It is this that must somehow come front and center in the political arena.